Denounce stifling of conservative speech on college campuses
On March 2 at Middlebury College in Vermont, author and academic Charles Murray planned to speak on his recent book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010.” He was invited by a local chapter of the American Enterprise Institute, but at the podium, Murray was met with protesters that chanted lines such as, “racist, sexist, anti-gay, Charles Murray, go away,” according to a March 3 Inside Higher Ed article. Murray and his interviewer, Professor Allison Stanger of the Political Science department, were then escorted to a private room from where he delivered his speech and answered questions via digital video. After the abbreviated lecture, Murray and Stanger were escorted to their car by two security guards, according to a March 5 Boston Globe article.
Stanger, a self-avowed Democrat, explained in a Facebook post what came next: “what transpired … felt like a scene from Homeland … We confronted an angry mob … Most of the hatred was focused on Dr. Murray, but when I took his right arm both to shield him from attack and to make sure we stayed together so I could reach the car too, that’s when the hatred turned on me. One thug grabbed me by the hair and another shoved me in a different direction. I noticed signs with expletives and my name on them … I feared for my life.” Stanger was then taken to the emergency room.
Although the protest made national headlines, students attempting to censor speakers with whom they disagree is not something absent from our recent memory. I want to make clear: The protest itself, insofar as it is an expression of speech, is not problematic. Speaking out in such a way should be encouraged. But violence is unacceptable, and the violence of this protest signifies a notable regression in the way many students today relate to free expression.
President Liebowitz, addressing the campus community in a March 6 email, nobly expressed his concern for this alarming phenomenon of attempted censorship, stating that “what happened at Middlebury could happen at any American college or university.” In the email, he urged the student body to attend an open session of the Presidential Task Force on Free Expression, which was held last Wednesday, March 8. As a right-leaning individual at a majority-liberal school, I was excited by the prospect of a space in which I could freely voice my opinion, and I applaud President Liebowitz for convening such a group.
Brandeis Chief Diversity Officer and Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Mark Brimhall-Vargas facilitated the discussion. He successfully conducted the forum without bias until he stated that Charles Murray himself is “an avowed racist” and that there is “no disagreement” on the matter. This is problematic for a variety of reasons.
First, what Brimhall-Vargas said is false. There are relatively few public figures in America who are avowed racists, the David Dukes and neo-Nazis among them. Charles Murray, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, is not. His position taken in his book “The Bell Curve” is based on empirical studies and is a defensible claim. While one of its modest conclusions, namely that intelligence may be linked to genetics, may be objectionable, it is neither overtly racist nor from ill-will. In fact, social scientists make clear that they unequivocally reject eugenics.
And there is disagreement on the matter. While some organizations, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, claim he uses “racist pseudoscience,” other groups, such as AEI, say that he is a respected “political scientist, author, and libertarian.”
Second, what Brimhall-Vargas said is part of a broader, more prevalent issue: using labels as a means to delegitimize and invalidate the other side. It’s an alarming phenomenon whereby people, especially those who would describe themselves as liberal, use labels such as “racist,” “sexist” and “misogynist” to describe those who they would rather ignore and dismiss entirely. Because if someone is racist, he or she does not deserve a platform from which to speak. The issue at hand is one of erroneous conflation — conflating those who espouse hate speech and those who espouse speech with which some — or even most — disagree; this is what Brimhall-Vargas did. What we must do is draw a firm line between them.
In the hate-speech camp, I place provocateurs such as Milo Yiannopoulos and neo-Nazis, or others who vehemently and explicitly attack certain groups. In the second camp, I place serious academics, authors, journalists and activists who genuinely seek the truth and are open to engage in debate with sound and defensible evidence. Among the latter group is Charles Murray, who holds defensible positions and has appeared in numerous public debates to justify said opinions. Those in this group — who espouse speech with whome we disagree — should be given a platform to speak for the sake of the free and open exchange of ideas, despite the fact that their views may upset some people. This is especially important on a campus whose motto is about the pursuit of “Truth even unto its innermost parts,”
Fortunately, Brimhall-Vargas is not the sole member of the Task Force on Free Expression. Nonetheless, representing the Brandeis administration, he endorsed a particular, disturbing view about how our community should treat those with which we disagree — that we should label and ostracize them.
By erroneously saying that there is “no disagreement” on the matter, he also claimed a certain authority on Charles Murray — implying that any contrasting opinion simply does not exist, or if it does, it is so extreme as to bar admittance into our discussion. This is problematic because it alienates the views of those who disagree with Brimhall-Vargas.
Most alarming, it contributes to the growing marginalization of conservatives on campus — whereby conservative viewpoints are erroneously deemed “racist” and illegitimate, and thus, these individuals cannot speak freely. Similar labeling exists on the other side of the aisle. Current candidate for Student Union President Paul Sindberg ’18 made a comment to this end, also during the open session, saying that “the idea that conservative students are marginalized is blatantly false.” To me this remark says, “Your struggle isn’t real,” a hypocritical statement that only further demonstrates the degree to which conservative students are alienated on campus.
The “tyranny of the majority” with regard to opinion is real. A Hoot study published last year confirms this point. In fact, the study noted that while 76 percent of liberal students on campus feel comfortable expressing their political opinions, the same holds true for only 25 percent of students who identify as conservative.
Conservatism for many students is a fundamental aspect of their identity. Like liberalism, for many, it is a deeply held philosophy, a system of ideas about how the world is and how the world should be. To delegitimize conservatives’ opinion is to imply that their views are so outrageous as to be considered hate speech. Again, we must not conflate the two and must draw a firm line between them.
Regardless of which side of the political spectrum you ascribe to, the fact that the very facilitator on our forum for free expression picked a side at all is deeply troubling.
The propensity to use labels as a means of invalidating opinions with which we disagree must end if we hope to maintain the free expression of ideas that is so crucial to the Brandeis campus.
In such times, it would be wise to heed former U.S. President Barack Obama, who stated in a 2015 educational town hall that “anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them … you shouldn’t silence them … That’s not the way we learn,” according to a Sept. 15, 2015 Washington Post article.
Or, as two Middlebury professors put it in a statement of principles following the Murray incident: “Only through the contest of clashing viewpoints do we have any hope of replacing mere opinion with knowledge.”